Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: isolation

Hands, Soul, And The Crack In Everything.

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In the front window of Clay Yoga, Pittsburgh.

This is a long post, a good one for Thanksgiving week, so if you walk through it, thank you. Today my friend Jenn, who shares her wisdom about yoga and recovery in my book, has seven years sober. On Facebook she posted a beautiful meditation about what her sobriety means. I hope you read it: click here. She unabashedly talks about her soul, about bringing the life of her soul to bear in the world to help bring about peace. About giving to other people.

I’ve spent so much time in these past 7 years thinking about what I need to do to be fulfilled (whether it’s material or psychological) that at times I have forgotten that I am an integral piece to the universe – that my existence matters greatly. I have a lot to give by just being around. Whether it’s showing up to a meeting just to be there for another addict/alcoholic, giving tzedakah, all of which nourish my soul.

People are scared of the word “soul.” Just writing the word “soul” kind of flips my stomach. What does it mean, “soul”? If we don’t know what it means, maybe it’s threatening. Maybe it’s sentimental, anti-intellectual, reductive, essentialist. Maybe it doesn’t really exist. If it doesn’t exist, and I talk about it and act like it’s real, I’ll look like an idiot. No, I’ll BE an idiot.

But Jenn writes about her soul without fear. (So does Leonard Cohen, see below.)

I want this.

//

The thing is, connections happen that I can’t control. I met Jenn six years ago by chance, at a meeting I’d never been to and to which I’ve never gone since. (“I totally remember that,” Jenn said this morning. “You rode your bike.”) I had a few months, and later I stole a Vicodin and ate it, and Jenn just kept showing up in my life, and there were things about her that were irresistible to me. The beauty of her face, for one. The way something inside her would light up that beauty and shine its brightness into the darkness of—

Yeah, my soul.

It made me want to stop patching up all my cracks with drugs and let the light in.

Jenn and Olliver

Jenn and Cara’s daughter. Just lookit them. (via Instagram @blackcatcara)

She talks about that in her post—what lights her fire. It’s sharing with other people. Jenn has a gabillion friends online and In Real Life because people are just drawn to her openness. She LIKES to talk to people. “I’m good at it,” she once told me. She can cold-call anyone, from famous researchers and politicians to people in halfway houses, where she donates time teaching yoga to give “tzedakah,” the Hebrew word for “charity.”

She knows who she is and she’s not afraid of that. For people like us, that’s what seven years sober brings.

//

Another person that keeps showing up in my life is Sadie. That’s not her real name. Sadie is a self-described pothead who has trouble staying away from weed. A while ago she found my blog and started writing to me. A few months into our on-and-off correspondence, she found the wherewithal to quit her 30-year every-day pot habit for the first time.

She wanted to pay me. She was like, You and your blog helped me quit pot. You should be compensated for this.

I was like, I don’t take money for this blog. This is just me giving back what people who love me gave to me.

A few months after that exchange I found a Facebook message from Sadie with a link to a fancy shoe-shop that I love. For a gift certificate.

Shoes — a gift from Sadie.

Shoes — a gift from Sadie.

I was tempted not to accept it. It activated all the bullshit from my childhood about how I don’t “deserve” generosity, about how “it’s better to give than to receive.” We had money—my dad worked as a research engineer for a Fortune 500 corporation—but my mother held the purse-strings tightly and all of us always felt poor. All three of us kids—we all have trouble accepting other people’s generosity.

Sometimes life isn’t so clear. I went to my sponsor, who hesitated for a moment. Then she said, “Your problem is that you can’t accept goodness in your life. She’s trying to be generous. Why don’t you try accepting this?”

So I wrote Sadie a note of Thanksgiving.

I don’t know what to say, except thank you… And that it’s folks like you, who have the courage to be real and to walk through their fear in order to have honest conversations, who make what I do worthwhile. I guess I’d also like to say that this act of yours is a real challenge to me… I have a way of thinking that what I do isn’t of any real value and that it’s not worthy of material consideration. This is a lesson I need to learn, and I’m glad you’re one of those who are teaching me.

She wrote back that since she’d quit pot she’d gotten two bonuses and a promotion, and had been recruited to the board of a local charity. She wrote,

These are accomplishments a 30+ year pothead never expected.

I bought a couple pairs of shoes and sent Sadie photos and more thank-you notes. Every time I put the shoes on, I thought of her. A few months went by. Then about a month ago she wrote again:

i’ve resumed my shitty habits and am not feeling too bright or proud. I suck at letting anyone help me. Really bad. But I don’t regret trying to crack this open. And I don’t think I’ve given up entirely.

“Crack this open.” Letting the light in.

I wrote back and told her about the people I met online who walked with me, who wrote to me every day, multiple times a day, some of whom I’ve never met in person. Danielle. Tom. Janice. And I told her it has been important for me to heal from trauma in order to stay in recovery.

I knew when I was writing that sentence—heal from trauma—that it was going to grab her. Because this is a woman with a lot of hurt in her history. It makes her feel Permanently Fucked-Up, Defective, Useless.

She wrote back—first when she was stoned; then, after she’d come down, she wrote that she has been smoking weed to build a wall around her permanently fucked-up self.

Sadie has cracks all over the place. She’s working overtime with the pot to patch it all up. It’s exhausting work, and there’s not enough pot in the world to finish it.

//

Jenn wrote this morning:

Before sobriety, I did not believe that I was able to be loved, that I was worth loving. It has only been in sobriety that I’ve been able to tap into these with such a depth of understanding. And the beauty is…we’re still on this journey. Every day is a new day.

Sometimes she loses sight of her commitment to eat nourishing food, to stay physically and mentally fit, to bring up “noble children” to foster the welfare of all life on earth. To lead “a life of understanding, loyalty, unity and companionship not only for ourselves but also for the peace of the universe.”

Fucking HUGE ideas there. Jenn thinks big and I think she knows it. Part of recovery is accepting that these big commitments are good to work toward and also unattainable 24/7. We do our best. And the thing that allows us to accept our limitations is learning we’re lovable.

Let me just reiterate—Jenn wrote this morning: 

Before sobriety, I did not believe I was worth loving.

Sadie wrote this morning:

You continue not to write me off no matter how much I deserve it.

Sadie doesn’t believe she deserves anyone’s care, including her own. Yeah—I was in this place when I met Jenn six years ago, and the love and just pure willingness to connect shone out of her face, and it was irresistible and I began to look for it in other people. And I found it.

I want to tell Sadie that there are people—if she looks for them—who will love her unconditionally, who will look her in the eyes and turn that bright klieg light of love on her face, but I can’t tell her that because she won’t believe me. Hell, I wouldn’t have believed that when I was still using. I was patching up the cracks with drugs, it was very dark inside, I wanted it that way. I Would Not Let The Light In.

Instead I try to put the klieg light into words. I try to shine some of the light Jenn and so many other people have shone into me.

I wrote Sadie this morning:

i mean quitting pot is your decision. i don’t care whether you continue to use pot or not. i have no investment in it. but i do care about whether you’re suffering, and it seems that you continue to suffer, and that pot is a somewhat useful but impermanent and incomplete system of managing that suffering. not that spiritual and physical fitness are permanent. they aren’t—i have to keep working at both of them. but they are complete, or much more far-ranging than drugs (for me), and they never run out. they also let me connect to my fellow human beings, which, as you see from your last two messages, drugs prevent us from doing. addiction isolates me and i’m sick of isolating myself. it’s a kind of self-punishment and i’ve experienced enough real love that i want more of that rather than more drugs.

I can’t be Jenn for Sadie because I can’t see her. I can’t hold her hand. Holding hands is such a powerful act of connection and healing. Do you know how many nerve endings are in our hands?—2,500 nerve receptors per square centimeter. Hands contain some of the body’s densest areas of sensation. When we touch each other’s hands it sets off an electrical and chemical storm of affection, care, protection, safety. Love.

I can’t hold Sadie’s hand. But I can give her what Janice, Danielle, Tom gave me. If I keep writing, she might find someone’s hands In Real Life.

Stranded.

Manhattan_bridge_snowWe landed at LaGuardia and arrived at the midtown hotel early Thursday morning, and even before we sat down we were strategizing about how to get back out. The “storm of the century” (O how the media love to whip up enthusiasm), a northeaster packing snow, was cooking up and we reserved rooms for an extra night, the first in a long line of contingencies we worked out over the course of the day. We sat in the little European lobby drinking tea and considering our options.

“That guy’s checking you out,” my friend said. She’s 73, she’s been married for 50 years, to one guy. What does she know about anyone checking anyone out?

I scanned the lobby and couldn’t see who she meant. We were sitting near two young men speaking German.

“Him,” she said, nodding toward the guy sitting three feet from me. He was maybe 10 or 15 years younger than I and his long curly brown hair was half-hidden by a woolen watch cap.

Nein,” I told her.

“Oh yes,” she said.

Then he glanced into my face.

What do I know about anyone checking anyone out? Apparently not much.

//

0By 3 p.m. we were stranded.

We sat in a coffee shop west of Times Square, she working her iPhone, I working mine, peering at flight schedules and train timetables. The wait-times to speak to agents were upwards of three hours. At 4 I put my name in a queue for a call-back from Delta. I kept my phone on during the play, expecting a call at 7; the phone rang back at 11. I filed email queries and Twitter queries. They’d cancelled 3,000 flights and all buses out. The snow was due not that night but the following: 10-15 inches.

Hell, I thought, that’s not the storm of the century. The storm of the century was western New York Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when three feet fell in a single lake-effect afternoon. My three-year-old son woke from his nap and ran from window to window, clapping and hollering, “Mama! It’s snowing and thundering and lightning-ing all at the same time!”

The storm of the century was the Ohio valley the winters of 1977 and 1978, when three feet fell in a couple days, trees lost their branches, power lines snapped and lay live in the road, deer ate the bushes around the house to keep from starving, and school was shut for a week. We played Clue and charades forever. I took my sister sledding, in the sodden days before microfiber outerwear or even waterproof boots. Back then, a measly ten inches by no means guaranteed a snow-day: they’d just run the plows and wrap the bus-tires in heavy chains and make the morning world sound like sleigh-bells.

“Stranded” has an interesting sound to it. A “strand” of pearls, a “strand” of hair—a long, thin, ribbony sound. We sat “stranded” in the middle of Manhattan, millions of people milling around us. The word comes from a Viking word, strond, for beach or riverbank. When their boats were “stranded,” they were scattered, washed up on the beach, the bank, the strand. A famous street in London called The Strand is named after the shore of the tidal River Thames, which for millennia was wide and shallow, accommodating barge-travel; then in the nineteenth century the Victoria Embankment and the Albert Bridge were built in Chelsea, deepening the channel by erasing the strand.

We were beached on the banks of Midtown. We needed to shove offshore.

We made plans to leave Saturday but as time marched on, it became clear Saturday would be too late. I tossed in bed Thursday night, thinking I may not get back in time for a job interview (my first job interview in 18 years; I’ve been doing business by word-of-mouth for almost two decades) on Monday morning. I’d be sleepless with dark Gypsy circles under my eyes, unable to Be Awesome, as the kids say. So I bought Amtrak tickets at 6 this morning and here we are, crossing the banks of the Delaware, following the shores of the Susquehanna, the strands, rolling on the steel river.

//

It occurred to me this morning, sitting in the hot Amtrak lounge at Penn Station, talking with my friend Lucy (“Are you OK? Are you stranded?” she texted), that having grown up in an alcoholic family I have a habit of stranding myself. In order to make myself feel safe, I try to control outcomes. I go into situations with the opposite of what my Al-Anon sponsor has advised. “High hopes, low expectations,” she always says. A recipe for optimism: thinking positively, surrendering outcomes. When my expectations are high and my hopes are low, however, I get into trouble. I attach myself to a specific outcome with little belief that it’ll happen. Because it usually doesn’t happen. I can’t control outcomes. So my boat runs aground, because I’m essentially powering it with unsustainable fuel.

Since I’m usually ashamed when I run aground, I don’t call people. It takes Lucy texting me (Are you stranded?) to wake me up and allow me to relax and let the tears fall in the hot Amtrak Lounge at Penn Station, throngs of people waiting for trains outside.

The strand of communication saves me. (I needed a meeting today.) Phones used to be wired: strands of wires strung throughout communities, between communities, connecting each other, an actual network. Now the networks are digital, virtual, cellular, whatever that really means, and though they’re less visible or tangible they’re no less real or helpful. Lucy was 600 miles away but she sat with me in Penn Station, listening to my tears fall and it was her act of love and acceptance that allowed me to collect my scattered self and move back onto the river. To take care of myself.

Reviews: “Black Swan” And “The King’s Speech.”

Today is “One Plus One” because I have one year and one day of continuous sobriety… yay. More on that later.

Also because I’m reviewing two films I saw over the holiday, both of which illuminate problems and solutions faced by addicts seeking (and sometimes not seeking) recovery.

Black Swan

Natalie Portman Black Swan

Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

An enjoyable psycho-ballet-thriller. Natalie Portman, who was miscast as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl because of her lack of voluptuousness (and her inability to shed her American accent), was fine as Nina, the anorexic-bulimic-workaholic ballerina whose body is controlled at home by her mother (Barbara Hershey) and at work by her artistic director (hot Frenchman Vincent Cassel, who was also marvelous as the Duke of Anjou in Elizabeth).

Nina doesn’t own herself.

Trying, like a good little addict, to please everyone, she drives herself, working late nights until even the company’s rehearsal pianist calls it quits and tells her to go home and find a life. But she has no home, because her mother rules her apartment, even crashing in an armchair in her room. … Her body rebels with rashes and adhesions, which she goes to great length to hide. Another more sensuous ballerina in the company (Mila Kunis) tries to befriend her and mentors her in the art of popping pills and seducing dudes in clubs—a kind of false “letting go” which leads to delusions and paranoia, sending Nina past the point of no return. She wills herself through all her obstacles and eventually gets what she wants—professional success, approval, billboards on the side of Lincoln Center, etc.—but at a huge cost, and she never comes close to trusting or connecting with any of the other characters despite their best efforts. Which is the point: her illness drives her to complete isolation.

The King’s Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI in The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech and Black Swan are about the same problems, really: childhood abuse and the illness it creates, including illnesses of obsessiveness and compulsiveness comparable to addiction, if not also including addiction; and reclaiming ownership of the body in an effort to reclaim self-expression.

“I have a voice!” shouts Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI. “Yes, you do,” says Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech therapist cum psychotherapist/sponsor.

I loved The King’s Speech. It was good to see Helena Bonham Carter playing something along the lines of a real human being for once, rather than a demented psycho wiccan, or an animated character. She makes a decent human being.

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, cheerfully refusing to co-sign Bertie’s bullshit.

The aspect I liked best was the relationship between Bertie and Lionel. “Bertie” was the pet-name used only by the king’s family for the king himself, and Lionel demanded to use the nickname. The moment I liked best, the one I wrote down, was the moment when Lionel and Bertie negotiate their initial meeting: Lionel tells Bertie not to smoke and makes it clear he is not going to, as it were, “co-sign any bullshit.”

As the film progressed, their relationship began to parallel a sponsor-sponsee relationship. For example, it turns out that Lionel isn’t a “doctor” of speech therapy but rather a former actor who started using his experience in drama to help shell-shocked veterans of the Great War to reclaim their powers of expression: just one guy using his experience in the service of helping other suffering guys. The guy he’s helping now, it turns out, was starved by his nanny, abused by his parents, bullied by his brothers, put into painful leg-splints to correct knock-knees and made to use his right hand when he was naturally left-handed. Isolated as royalty, he could tell no one about his feelings. His fear almost literally choked him.

“My sign doesn’t say ‘doctor,’ and I don’t have any letters after my name,” Logue tells Bertie, after the Archbishop of Canterbury (an always formidable Derek Jacobi) questions his credentials and attempts to replace Logue with his own candidate. The king wavers in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, feeling forced to fire the man who has been the only person in the world to whom he could confide any of his fears—the root of his stammering problem: fear.

“Your majesty,” the prelate says imperiously, “your function is to be advised, and I have advised you. My duty is to look after the person on whose head I am to place this crown.”

“Thank you, archbishop,” Bertie says finally, “but it is, after all, my head.”

The ending, naturally, is historic. But the way in which Logue helps the king deliver his first wartime speech, in the film at least, is a brilliant piece of sponsorship. All along the way he lets Bertie make his own hesitations and mistakes and decisions. He allows himself to screw up. He waits stuff out. He cares, but he remembers it’s about the job and not about his own ego. Though he’s dealing with the top dog, he might just as well be helping any schoolboy. And the man heals.

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